Liza B. Zimmerman, WINE SEARCHER
“Right now, there are some areas of severe over-concentration, i.e. Valley of the Moon, West Side Road and Dry Creek Valley in Healdsburg,” notes Padi Selwyn, one of the co-founders of Preserve Rural Sonoma County, an organization advocating to protect the area’s rural character. The County of Sonoma’s general plan had projected 239 wineries in place by the year 2020, yet has approved nearly 500 wineries to date, with more in the pipeline, she adds.
While many wine regions in California have been growing by leaps and bounds, few have developed at the recent pace of Sonoma County.
According to the Santa Rosa, California-based Permit and Resource Development Management Department of Sonoma County, from 2000 to 2015 there was a 300 percent increase in new winery facilities. Sonoma County was home to 127 wineries in 2000 and has nearly 450 now.
More wineries offer a wider spectrum of wine-tasting experiences – food-pairing options and party venues have been attracting more locals, and visitors, along with more traffic and with it sometimes drunk drivers. While winery owners may be thrilled about some of the results, many local residents clearly are not.
The Napa Valley long ago emerged as California’s leading wine region. Careful planning in the region set aside much of the area’s land for agriculture by creating the US’s first Agricultural Preserve in 1968, according to Patsy McGaughy, the St Helena, California-based communications director for the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV).
This pioneering legislation was followed two decades later by the Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO), which was enacted in 1990. It has since dictated how many wineries can be open to the public, serve food and number of visitors and events each can host per year.
“The reason Napa became a brand and can command premium value both for wine and for land, pay its workers well and support public services as a result, is because of the genius of the Wine Definition Ordinance, defining wineries as an agricultural use [of the land],” according to Barbara Insel, president and CEO of the Stonebridge Research Group, a wine industry analyst.
While other wine regions have yet to see nearly the same level of consumer interest and have allowed their regions to grow naturally, Santa Barbara hit a snag after the 2004 release of Sideways. The film sent reams of tourists rushing to the area’s wineries and restaurants, and clogged the 5000-resident Danish-themed town of Solvang located in the center of its wine country.
“The tension started after Sideways,” agreed Morgen McLauglin, the executive director or the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association. Locals saw wineries as bringing visitors that clogged roads, caused traffic jams and encouraged drunk drivers. One of the results of that uptick in visitors led to a winery ordinance that the region has been working on for four years. One that McLauglin says is among the most restrictive in terms of the number of tasting rooms permitted.